The Future Of Work
The Future Of Work
It might have taken over 200 years but in the early part of the twenty first century it seems we’d finally realised how to design the office effectively. The evolution of the workplace has seen cellular spaces give way to battery farm-style cubicles until open plan became de rigueur. Each model came with different problems, being by turns hierarchical and uncreative, de-humanising, and acoustically challenging. Finally, we’d realised that most workers needed a range of different environments for a variety of tasks – so places to collaborate, to relax, to concentrate, as well as areas for large meetings and intimate gatherings. Meanwhile smart technology promised to tailor offices for the workforces’ specific needs, including individual light levels and ventilation. In the workplace of the very-near-future, a coffee machine would even have your favourite flat white ready for you as you walked in the door. (The only sacrifice you’d make would be surrendering your data and in doing so, a chunk of your private life for a more comfortable corporate life. However, that’s a column for another time.)
Offices at the cutting edge of workplace thinking began to look more like our homes. Staff were no longer tied to a desk with a large beige computer in one corner. Instead they were free to roam and even lounge, as they collaborated. And this was reflected in the furniture manufacturers produced. At the turn of the millennium, Studio Makkink & Bey produced the Ear Chair, which featured long protruding wings designed to create a semblance of privacy in a noisy environment. In 2018 Vitra launched a sofa entitled Soft Work by Barber Osgerby that predicted the death of the desk, while several years before that, the British company Orangebox even designed an up-market deck chair for the workplace.
However, this workplace nirvana has been completely upended by a virus that has changed so many lives. One of the by-products of the global pandemic has been the vast swathes of people forced to work from home. And, if you believe to press reports, for many it has proven a revelation. In the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Dana Mattioli and Konrad Putzier have predicted wholesale changes in the way white collar workers behave, noting that for many companies across the financial, tech and media sectors productivity appears to have been unaffected, while also speculating that the development of huge buildings creating for global brands is over. And there can be no doubt that, for many, Zoom, the digital conferencing platform, has proven a hugely useful tool, allowing people to retain, and in some cases forge, relationships without needing to bounce from airport to airport, desperately attempting to stave off the onset of jet lag.
Has the office had its day then? Well no, not entirely. Working from home has undoubted benefits – the reduced commute from bedroom to kitchen table, for instance, and being able to concentrate without having to block out the white noise of the open-plan office, or the constant nagging questions from colleagues – but there are distinct downsides too. The delineation between work and home becomes tricky is discern. Experienced freelancers that I know have found some creative ways to deal with the issue. An acquaintance of mine used to start his day by leaving his house through the front door and walking around the back to the kitchen door. At 6pm he’d simply retrace his steps, giving him a physical sense that his work was done. For many others though the discipline required is too much.
And while home may be a comfortable haven for those higher up the corporate ladder, others, particularly younger workers, won’t feel those benefits. Spending all day on a laptop in a bedroom of a shared flat simply isn’t healthy. Besides, at its best the office acts as a crucible for ideas and a place where all-important social capital can be accrued. I still work and socialise regularly with people I shared an office with 20 years ago. It is unlikely that bond of shared experience could develop over Zoom. As Thomas Heatherwick, who is currently working on Google’s new building in King’s Cross with fellow practice BIG, told me recently: ‘I firmly believe that humans are a social species and that we need to be together and that there’s an intensity and connection that you get that being together produces.’ There is then a danger that not returning to offices could encourage a new form of inequality.
So, people will become bored of working from home and crave shared experience once more. The office then will survive but the manner in which we work is going to evolve as we deal with the virus. It seems we will, for example, spend more time in our homes and that large corporations are increasingly likely to open a network of smaller regional offices rather than behemoths in the centre of cities that require the workforce to spend hours on public transport. Our new world will require architects, designers, engineers and facilities managers to think on their feet. Social distancing and partitioning are of course going to be issues – one hopes the design world can improve on the makeshift acrylic screens that have been put up in our shops so far. Likewise, there is an acute need for natural ventilation to make sure air isn’t simply recirculated around a building, which will be easier in summer than winter one suspects. It would be nice to think too that we will develop a new respect for the staff that clean our buildings. Not only will they be sweeping up after the day has finished, but now they will be on the front line of protecting lives. Perhaps we might discover a new-found appreciation for a job that should be considered a craft.
And perhaps intriguingly a hole in the furniture market that, until this point, was well and truly saturated may well emerge. As Heatherwick points out, with the welter of video conferencing many of us are doing, our homes are turning into mini TV studios. “You’re speaking to the world and what is behind you or around you is being shared. There’s something beautiful and intimate about that but it’s something that most people haven’t thought through,’ he says, adding that ‘the thinking doesn’t feel quite there yet. When you look at the furniture that is available it isn’t tailored for this new intensity of use.”
This September he will be one of ten designers from across Europe investigating this new typology as part of Connected, a project organised by the American Hardwood Export Council and the furniture manufacturer Benchmark. The group – that includes established names such as Jaime Hayon, alongside designers nearer the start of their careers like Maria Bruun and Ini Archibong – have been given a trio of timbers (Red Oak, Maple and Cherry) and asked to create a table and chair that will be used in their own homes. These will then be made by Benchmark, with all communication between designer and manufacturer taking place across the internet. No one knows what the other is making and at the end of the process the finished results will be displayed at the Design Museum in London. It’s a project that directly reflects our digital present and the way many of us are being forced to work but might also throw a spotlight on future possibilities too.